Tim Dieppe comments on the latest news on the government’s DIY abortion policy.
Doublespeak reached new levels with the abortion amendments which Diana Johnson MP brought into the Domestic Abuse Bill. Measures aimed at liberalising abortion were framed as protecting women from abuse, when in fact they would have had the opposite effect. The amendments were introduced at the last minute, meaning that they would be subject to the least scrutiny possible.
Abortion amendments framed as protection from abuse
New Clause 29 was intended to completely decriminalise abortion by repealing sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Persons Act. This would allow abortion on demand for any reason right up till the baby is capable of being born alive at 28 weeks. Sex-selective abortions, for example, would then become entirely legal. One could imagine abortions for hair colour or eye colour or other genetic variations once these become testable. The current legal limit for abortions is 24 weeks, and surveys have shown that most people would favour this limit being reduced rather than extended.
What is more, Clause 29 would have removed legal safeguards which benefit women. There would have been no restrictions on where abortions can be performed, allowing mail-order abortion pills on demand, and even abortion pills to be distributed in schools. No doctor would be required to participate in or certify an abortion. All this in the name of protection from abuse. Fortunately, in a rare victory for common sense, this clause was ruled out of scope of the Domestic Abuse Bill by the Speaker of the House of Commons.
New Clause 28 was to amend the Abortion Act to allow abortions to take place in any context, including at home, without needing to attend a clinic. This was also framed as protecting women, but would actually remove the important protection of an in-person clinical visit for vulnerable women. In the event, the clause was withdrawn after it became apparent that it would not gain the support of the House of Commons. This, however was only after the government promised a consultation on whether to make permanent the temporary Covid-19 measure allowing DIY abortion pills to be prescribed by telemedicine. The government then also promised to extend these ‘temporary’ measures until the public consultation has concluded and a decision has been made. This suggests that DIY home abortions will continue to be legal for many months from now.
Judicial review of ‘temporary’ measures
The ‘temporary’ measures allowing telemedicine DIY abortions are subject to a judicial review following a legal challenge from Christian Concern. The measures were announced by Health Secretary Matt Hancock, after he had expressly told parliament that “There are no proposals to change the abortion rules due to covid-19.” Then once parliament was shut down, significant changes were announced allowing DIY abortions. The judicial review is set to be heard by the Court of Appeal on 28 or 29 July. Lord Justice Lewison has stated that is “arguable” that Health Secretary Matt Hancock exceeded his powers in designating “a pregnant woman’s home” a permissible place for abortion.
Misleading advice to the government
The judicial review has already revealed misleading advice to the government on the necessity of a clinical visit. Leading abortion provider BPAS wrote a letter to Matt Hancock which stated that the sole purpose for a patient attending clinic is “ingesting the mifepristone tablets.” This is plain false. Important clinical assessments are undertaken, including an ultrasound scan to determine the gestational age. The government submission to the secretary of state requesting approval of home abortions also failed to mention the routine clinical assessments that take place.
In spite of these revelations, Diana Johnson MP said in parliament when promoting her amendment: “Requiring a woman to attend at a clinic is not a clinical requirement.” I wonder if she could be accused of misleading parliament? We now know just how damaging allowing no clinical assessment has been. At least one woman took abortion pills provided over the phone to kill her baby at 28 weeks gestation – well beyond the 10 week limit for home abortions, or the 24 week legal limit for any kind of abortion. No clinical checks means that there is no way of clinically determining the gestational age of the pregnancy. BPAS has confirmed that it is investigating an additional eight cases where women have taken pills beyond the ten-week limit.
Home abortion is dangerous
An expert witness statement from Kevin Duffy, former director of abortion provider Marie Stopes International, highlighted the results of a study on the safety of telemedicine abortion. Key conclusions were:
- 45% of women at <=9 weeks gestation reported their rate of bleeding was higher than expected.
- One third of all women reported their rate of pain was higher than expected.
- One-in-nine women taking the abortion pills at home required surgical intervention to complete their abortion.
- The higher the gestation age, the greater the risks involved, and with telemedicine the gestational age cannot be accurately assessed.
The portion requiring surgical intervention was much higher than expected. It is clear that, far from helping women, DIY home abortions are putting vulnerable women at risk.
Rules routinely broken
A nationwide investigation led by Kevin Duffy, and commissioned by Christian concern found that leading abortion providers are putting women at risk by failing to carry out the most basic checks when prescribing abortion tablets over the phone. ‘Mystery clients’ were able to obtain abortion pills using false names, false GP registrations, false dates of birth, and false gestational dates. In one case the ‘client’ gave a date that could only have led to an abortion beyond the 10-week gestational limit for home abortions. The callers were interrupted and rushed through the process – a process that is wide open to abuse, enabling people to obtain tablets for abused or under-age women, as well as for pregnancies beyond the gestational limit.
Abused women can’t be protected
Another expert witness statement from our legal case was quoted by Sir Edward Leigh MP in parliament in Monday’s debate:
“As Dr Gregory Gardner, a GP and honorary clinical lecturer at the University of Birmingham, highlighted in his witness statement:
“It will be difficult if not impossible to verify by phone or video whether a woman is undergoing any kind of duress to have an abortion. There does not seem to have been any consideration given to this in the proposed change in policy. There will be women who need delicate counselling to discover coercion or other forms of abuse.”
“His testimony highlights the fact that, if we pass this new clause, it will go against the very aims of this Bill, as a phone call often fails to illustrate whether a woman is in a domestic abuse situation.”
Fiona Bruce MP cited someone who works regularly with victims of domestic abuse. She quoted:
“This proposal in reality is actually a gift to male abusers who want their partners to abort.”
Instead of helping abused women, the amendment would actually have removed the protection of an in-person clinical visit before an abortion.
DIY abortions do not protect women
Christian Concern has been contacted by a psychiatrist who says that she has seen a woman who attempted suicide by overdosing on pain killers provided as part of a DIY abortion package after taking an abortion pill. Sadly, I expect we will hear more stories like this. Home abortion is extremely painful and can be dangerous. It should never have been allowed.
DIY home abortion was introduced as a ‘temporary’ measure for the Covid-19 lockdown. Nevertheless, abortion clinics have remained open throughout the pandemic, invalidating the supposed need to allow telemedicine abortions. Now that the lockdown has significantly eased, there is no justification whatsoever for continuing to allow DIY abortions. Yet the government has said it will now continue the practice until a public consultation is concluded! This will only put more women at risk and allow more coercion of abused women.
Hope for the safety of abused women now rests on the judicial review in the Court of Appeal later this month. All who care for vulnerable pregnant women should want the practice of DIY abortions to end. The longer it continues the more women will suffer in pain at home, and often alone. DIY abortion doublespeak is damaging, deceptive, and destructive.
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